On this day in 1815, Americans defeat British forces at the Battle of New Orleans. Did you know that we used to celebrate January 8 as a national holiday, with fireworks and celebrations, just like we do the Fourth of July?
Several weeks ago, I made a similar statement about “Evacuation Day,” the once-celebrated (now forgotten) New York holiday. What are all these “forgotten” anniversaries doing to our national identity? How are they undermining pride in our heritage?
The Battle of New Orleans occurred at the end of the War of 1812. That war with Britain resolved issues that remained outstanding after the American Revolution. Interestingly, the Battle of New Orleans was fought even after a treaty of peace had been signed with Britain. Unfortunately, that treaty was still on its way across the Atlantic Ocean. No one in America knew about it.
By late 1814, the British had turned their focus to the South. If the Port of New Orleans were captured, then it could help cut off supplies to the states. Major General Andrew Jackson was in New Orleans, preparing to defend the city when the British arrived in the area. On December 23, the British captured a plantation just outside of New Orleans. Unfortunately for them, one man got away. He ran to New Orleans and reported the British position to Jackson.
Jackson made an unexpected decision: He decided to march out of the city and meet the British. That night, he launched a surprise attack. The battle lasted most of the night and ended with no clear winner. The real battle was yet to come. In the meantime, the two sides sat on opposite sides of a plain, building their defenses and occasionally firing at each other.
The main attack came on January 8. “It was a daunting sight,” one historian writes of that attack, “thousands of redcoats filling the plain, sixty or seventy men deep in a broad front, moving inexorably toward the American lines.”
Jackson ordered his troops to fire—and they fired relentlessly! Rows of British soldiers fell, but they were replaced with more. At one point, they even seized an American redoubt, but the Americans soon took it back.
Perhaps the worst moment for the British came when several of their officers were killed. One eyewitness later noted: “All was now confusion and dismay. Without leaders, ignorant of what was to be done, the troops first halted and then began to retire, till finally the retreat was changed into a flight . . . .”
Soon, it was over. One American soldier later described the scene: “When the smoke had cleared away and we could obtain a fair view of the field, it looked, at the first glance, like a sea of blood. It was not blood itself which gave it this appearance but the red coats in which the British soldiers were dressed. Straight out before our position, for about the width of space which we supposed had been occupied by the British column, the field was entirely covered with prostrate bodies.”
The British weren’t entirely done. They attempted a siege of a nearby fort and stayed in the area for a few more weeks. But the impressive victory outside New Orleans on January 8 had pretty much decided it.
The Treaty of Ghent would soon arrive on American shores, bringing an end to the War of 1812. In some ways, the outcome in New Orleans was irrelevant. But it was important for the nation’s morale. We felt that we’d won the war that was, effectively, our second war of independence. The outcome of the Revolution had been more than just a fluke!
Donald R Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict (Bicentennial ed., 2012)
H.W. Brands, Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times (2005)
James Monroe, Proclamation—Announcing a Treaty of Peace Between the United States of America and His Britannic Majesty Signed at Ghent (February 18, 1815)
Letter from Andrew Jackson to James Monroe (January 9, 1815)
Robert V. Remini, The Life of Andrew Jackson (reprint ed. 2010)
The War of 1812: Writings from America’s Second War of Independence (Donald R. Hickey ed. 2013)